“The best lecture…. I have ever heard”: John Wain on Milton’s ‘Masque of Comus’

John Wain was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University from 1973 to 1975. The post was and is a part time, nominal one; a small salary and no formal duties beyond giving a certain number of lectures a year. The tradition is that the incumbent P of P will be a practising poet, which they almost without exception have been, and less definedly, that he or she should encourage or at least be personally accessible, some of the time, to student poets.

John Wain fulfilled all these obligations, which he quite clearly saw as such. His book about his time in the post, Professing Poetry, is a collection of his lectures from the first three years of his tenure, but it is also something more: a memoir of the times, a meditation on being a practising poet and writer, and – putting his money where his mouth was – a showcase of poets he encountered in those years and of their poems.

So we have some small pen-portraits of writers then almost unknown, such as Alan Hollinghurst, Andrew Motion, Andrew Harvey, and David Winzar (who won the Newdigate poetry prize during Wain’s years); and some who, maybe unfairly, never received much recognition outside the pages of the book: Sally Purcel in particular, one of a band of scholarly poets without any formal link to the University but very much within the ethos of the place at its best. Wain was approachable, spending good hours in Oxford’s student pubs like the King’s Arms, and always ready to share his time and opinions with young poets, and to critique their work.

His lectures have been particularly praised. The book shows the widely ranging subjects on which he talked, from Edward and Helen Thomas’s life together, the poetry of William Empson and Philip Larkin, James MacPherson and the Irish Fenian cycle; and this one, reproduced here in full, on Milton’s Masque of Comus. This is the printed version of his Inaugural Lecture given at the Sheldonian Theatre in December 1973. Peter Levi, writing Wain’s Guardian obituary in 1994, called this talk ‘the best lecture on an academic subject which I have ever heard… [John Wain] brought [it] to life in a way that for me is still flowering.’

 

REFLECTIONS ON THE FIRST NIGHT OF COMUS

  One of W. B. Yeats’s last plays, The Death of   Cuchulain, begins with ‘a bare stage of any period’, on to which enters ‘a very old man looking like something out of mythology’. The old man, who is a surrogate for the author, opens the play with these words:

 I have been asked to produce a play called The Death of Cuchulain .It is the last of a series of plays which has for theme his life and death. I have been selected because I am out of fashion and out of date like the antiquated romantic stuff the thing is made of. I am so old that I have forgotten the name of my father and mother, unless indeed I am, as I affirm, the son of Talma, and he was so old that his friends and acquaintances still read Virgil and Homer. When they told me that I could have my own way, I wrote certain guiding principles on a bit of newspaper. I wanted an audience of fifty or a hundred, and if there are more, I beg them not to shuffle their feet or talk when the actors are speaking. […Read in full here}

  1. The whole book, Professing Poetry, will be freely available soon on this website.
  2. The Professorship hit the non-literary headlines during the 2010 election, with the controversial withdrawal of first, the favourite for the post, Derek Walcot, and then – after she had become the first female poet to be elected – of Ruth Padel, coincidentally a friend of Dad’s from years ago. His memoir of the slightly farcical and vulgar mechanics of the 1973 election, given the tongue-in-cheek title ‘Four to One at Ladbroke’s’, also appears in Dad’s book.

Will Wain

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